Christianity and Feminism: A Look into the Work of Mary Astell

To many, approaching the Bible through a feminist lens involves a contradiction of ideologies and hence results in incoherencies. The seeming inner conflict of holding both worldviews has been described in the following way:

 The Bible reinforced ancient notions of women’s inferiority, yet gave them permission to operate in an expanding sphere of philanthropy, humanitarian campaigning, and missionary endeavor. It exhorted women to silence and submission, but also gave them role models of activators and leaders. Religion provided an opportunity for self-fulfillment and self-expression … It empowered and liberated at the same time as it constrained and oppressed.1

Such an argument implies that Christians who advocate for women’s rights do so (and have done so) despite their faith. At the heart of this line of reasoning lies the widely held assumption that the Bible is, at its core, fundamentally sexist. Such a belief is not only misinformed but also discredits some of the extraordinary women who founded and advanced feminism throughout history. Mary Astell, a feminist thinker and Christian from the 17th century, dedicated her life to fighting for gender equality. Contrary to the above critique, Astell’s life illustrates a fight for women’s rights that existed through her faith, not despite it. The life of one Christian feminist alone cannot prove that no tension exists between the ideologies; however, Astell’s work presents an interesting model for responding to oppressive arguments founded on erroneous interpretations of the Bible, a model that is still relevant and radical today.

Mary Astell, born in 1666 to an upper middle class Anglican family, is often credited as being the first English feminist. From an early age she was frustrated by the subordination of her sex, lamenting in a poem about her situation: “How shall I be a Peter or a Paul / … / But ah my Sex denies me this.”2 Nonetheless, at age 22 she moved to London with the intention of becoming a writer. While this was a very lofty goal for a woman at the time, Astell’s readable, witty prose and innovative arguments gained her favor in the eyes of many influential women who assisted in her initial publication. Her first work, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, was published in 1694 and proved to be incredibly successful, as did its successor, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies Part II Wherein a Method is Offered for the Improvement of their Minds.3

The ideas presented in both of these works, as well as in her highly influential work Some Reflections Upon Marriage published in 1700, rest on her commitment to the intersection of faith and reason. Astell held that reason was a God-given faculty that could, and should, be used to “test” the commonly held Christian teachings of the day. As she put it, reason is “the Candle of the Lord set up in everyone’s heart” and “the light which GOD himself has set up in my mind to lead me to him.”4 It was through this faculty that she argued for the equality of men and women. Inspired by Luther’s sola scriptura, the concept that the Bible alone is the source of religious truth, Biblical scholarship was on the rise in Western Europe. Astell joined the conversation as a lone female voice, using both her faith and reason to guide her contributions. The foundation of her argument was the concept that it was men, not God, nor women themselves, who made women inferior. In a world that was constantly arguing for the natural inferiority of women, this was a radical idea.

She began by arguing that the dignity of women, rational creatures created by God, was associated with the dignity of God himself. Saying women were inherently subordinate was an insult to God: “we pity their mistake, and can calmly bear their scoffs, for they do not express so much contempt of us as they do of our Maker.”5 Because of her commitment to reason, Astell had no problem rejecting the traditional Biblical interpretations of her time that fought against this notion. As Sarah Apetrei states in her insightful analysis of Astell’s ideas, “Because Scripture could not be shown to be repugnant to rational reflection, it was legitimate to dispense with classical interpretations if they did not conform to Reason, and, for Astell, [gender] equality was self evidently rational.”6 Furthermore, Astell was not disheartened by the fact that most Biblical interpretations were against her, arguing that, as women were uneducated and unable to offer alternative interpretations, it was only natural that men (perhaps subconsciously) would continue promoting the status quo of gender rights in their Biblical interpretations. Similarly, she writes, “Women without their own Fault, are kept in Ignorance of the Original, wanting Languages and other helps to Criticise on the Sacred Text, of which they know no more, than Men are pleas’d to impart in their translations.”7

In Some Reflections Upon Marriage, Astell takes the arguments commonly presented against gender equality head on. She felt that this was her duty because before her no woman had “approached Scripture with a critical eye, ready to reject those customs and teachings which were absent from the text [of the Bible].”8 Interestingly, and contrary to the assumption made in the passage presented at the start of this essay, Astell responded to sexist arguments based on Scripture by turning to Scripture itself and applying rational analysis to her exegesis of it.

There were many passages that were commonly used to “prove” the inferiority of women. One such passage was the story of the Fall, the event described in Genesis where Eve eats the forbidden fruit and offers it to Adam, introducing sin into the world. Many Biblical scholars at the time used the fault of Eve to justify a subordinate role of women, arguing “her Subjection to the Man is an Effect of the Fall, and the Punishment of her Sin.”9 Astell actually agreed with the first part of this argument. To her, the subjection of women to men was in fact a result of the Fall; however, it was a result of the consequence of the Fall, the corruption of one’s Reason, rather than a direct divine imposition laid upon women. “If Mankind had never sinn’d [i.e. if the Fall had never taken place] Reason wou’d always have been obey’d, there wou’d have been no struggle for Dominion, and Brutal Power wou’d not have prevail’d.”10 Contrary to popular interpretation, the inferiority of women was not a divinely mandated punishment but instead a result of the corrupted Reason of humankind, a corruption inflicted upon humankind by its own sin. She expounded upon this idea, referring once again to the dignity of a Rational Mind and the purpose of women: “This be ‘tis certainly no Arrogance in a Woman to conclude, that she was made for the Service of GOD, and that this is her End. Because GOD made all Things for Himself, and a Rational Mind is too noble a Being to be Made for the Sake and Service of any Creature.”11

Another key set of passages often used to defend the gender inequality of her time were Paul’s instructions about the roles of men and women in 1 Corinthians 11. Verses such as “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” and “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” were used as descriptions of how a household should be run, with the husband completely in charge. Astell presents several arguments against the interpretation of these passages as instructions about the proper role of women as inferior. Looking at 1 Cor. 11:3, “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God,” Astell argues that “no inequality can be inferr’d from hence,” because “there is no natural Inferiority among the Divine Persons, but that they are in all things Coequal.”12 In other words, “the head of Christ is God” is not a description of God as superior to Christ, because, as implicitly articulated elsewhere in the Bible, all three members of the Trinity are equal. Indeed, this is a central aspect of the most common Christian Creed, the Nicene Creed, and fundamental to Christianity’s unique understanding of God as a trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Since the passage from 1st Corinthians is written as an analogy, it is likewise incorrect to infer that “the head of the woman is man” means man is superior to woman.

Astell also points to the context in which this passage is presented. The conclusion that Paul draws from the above statement is that women ought to cover their heads when they pray while men should not.13 In her exegesis, Astell remarks (undoubtedly with a smile), “Whatever the Apostle’s Argument proves in this place, nothing can be planer, than that there is much more said against the present Fashion of Men’s wearing long Hair, than for that Supremacy they lay claim to.”14 She continues, “For by all that appears in the Text, it is not so much a Law of Nature, that Women shou’d Obey Men, as that Men shou’d not wear long Hair.”15 Hence, Astell is arguing that Paul’s statements about women in this passage should be interpreted in the same way as his statements about hair: as describing the proper customs of the time and not as dictating Natural Laws. Most importantly, Astell turns to the end of this section of Paul’s letter and emphasizes his statement that, “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. … But everything comes from God.”16 Ultimately, Paul concludes that, as Astell describes in her witty way, “The Relation between the two Sexes is mutual, … both of them Depending intirely upon GOD, and upon Him only; which one wou’d think is no great Argument of the natural Inferiority of either Sex.”17

Finally, Astell presents a tongue-in-cheek response to other passages throughout Paul’s letters that refer to the place of women as inferior, such as a later section in 1 Corinthians.18 She begins by saying that just as the Bible speaks of women in a state of subjection, it talks about Jews and Christians under the rule of the Chaldeans and Romans, instructing them to live in quiet submission under the power of secular authorities. This opens the way for her attack: “But will any one say that these [Romans and Chaldeans] had a Natural Superiority? That they had a superior Understanding? … Or that the other were subjected to their Adversaries for … the Punishment of their sins? … Or for the Exercise of their Vertue?”19 Astell held that the descriptions of women under men were just that: descriptions. When applied to the role of Jews and Christians under the Romans, the arguments for the inferiority of women look comical.

In presenting these arguments, I have just skimmed the surface of Astell’s work. She continues this line of reasoning in Some Reflections Upon Marriage, systematically breaking down interpretation after interpretation of Scripture with Scripture, fighting for the equality of women through a Christian lens. Still, there are those who attempt to discredit her. Those who approach Astell and other Christian feminists with an attitude that insists the Bible hinders gender equality often accuse Astell of not truly being a feminist because of the  primarily theoretical nature of her work, arguing that her faith held her back from bringing about practical improvements in the lives of women. As discussed in this article, the accusation that she was hindered by her faith simply is not true; it was her faith that led her to her starting point that men and women are all created for the same purpose, and her faith that gave her the boldness to reject interpretations she found rationally incoherent. Further, as described by Dale Spender, the judgment that Astell was too theoretical is unfair because of the time in which she was writing: “Looking for a legal solution to the problem is very much a nineteenth- century strategy, and, I would argue, depends greatly on knowing what the problem is. Mary Astell was a pioneer when it came to formulating that problem, with all its complexities.”20

One certainly does not have to agree with all of her theology to find Astell inspirational. We can praise and remember her courageous refusal to accept injustice, despite its overwhelming social acceptance, and her methodology for doing so, a methodology founded in reason rather than emotion and which defeats opposing arguments on their own terms (e.g., she argues against arguments from Scripture with her own arguments from Scripture) is certainly one to be emulated today. When faced with arguments that seemed detrimental to her faith, Astell neither repudiated her beliefs nor ignored the challenges facing them. Instead, she responded to these issues directly, delving deeper into Scripture to find the intersection of faith and reason that provided a coherent description of the world. The Bible has been used to defend injustice many times in the past, and unfortunately probably will continue to do so in the future. By looking to figures such as Mary Astell, however, we are reminded that we should not concede these erroneous interpretations. None can say it better than she: “Whatever other Great and Wise Reasons Men may have for despising Women … it can’t be from their having learnt to do so in Holy Scripture. The Bible is for, and not against us, and cannot without great violence done to it, be urg’d to our Prejudice.21

 

1. Sarah Apetrei, Women, Feminism, and Religion in Early Enlightenment England (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 27.
2. Ruth Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist (Chicago, IL: The University of
Chicago Press, 1986) 61.
3. Ibid. 82.
4. Apetrei 127.
5. Ibid. 112.
6. Ibid. 131.
7. Ibid. 126.
8. Ibid. 133.
9. Mary Astell, Political Writings, edited by Patricia Springborg (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 72.
10. Ibid. 75.
11. Ibid. 72.
12. Ibid. 73.
13. 1 Cor 11:4-7.
14. Astell 73.
15. Ibid.
16. 1 Cor 11:11-12.
17. Astell 74.
18. 1 Cor 14:34-35.
19. Astell 75.
20. Dale Spender, Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them (London, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1982) 42.
21. Astell 28.

 

Steffi Ostrowski ’14 is from Oakmont, PA. She is a Computer Science and Philosophy double major.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,